Sunday, February 19, 2017
Red Headed Women and Whiskey!
Red Headed Women and Whiskey!
Jesus said; “Love your enemies.”
I find that difficult to do sometimes, particularly in the present political context in this country. We are so divided now. Republicans and Democrats, Conservatives and Liberals, Citizens and Immigrants, Christians, Muslims, Jews and Atheists. The rancor among us is palpable.
All this made me think of a time when I found myself in the hotbed of controversy over the building of a homeless shelter in Saint Albans, West Virginia. Our church operated what was called Christ’s Kitchen, a free breakfast and lunch program for the poor in the midst of a challenging neighborhood. There were a number of homeless folks who lived along the riverbank and under a bridge. One especially stormy night a small band of homeless folk put together a makeshift shelter of cardboard boxes. They set a fire to keep warm. Things got out of control and when the smoke cleared three people had died.
The press came by to investigate. We went over to the site of the fire and in what was one of the most pitiful things I’ve ever seen, I watched as the department of Public Works cleared the scene of all the worldly possessions of the homeless and the police gave tickets to them for littering and vagrancy. Not only had they lost their friends in the fire, all their worldly possessions were gone and they were facing court action and fines for the crime of being homeless. The reporter and I documented and published the sequence of events.
We went back to Christ’s Kitchen to collect ourselves in the aftermath of all this trauma. And then in a moment of inspiration, I said; “Give me your tickets!”. The reporter and I went out to the front steps of the church and I brandished the tickets in front of a camera and announced that the police had harassed the homeless at the direction of the city authorities, and that I had taken the tickets into my possession and if the courts wanted to collect fines they’d have to get the money out of me. The story made it to the front page of the Charleston Gazette
The response from the city was predictable. The next morning I arrived at my office to see my secretary in tears and she told me that the President of the City Council had called and and was in a state of outrage. He said to her and I quote; “Those Irish, the only thing they brought to this country was red headed women and whiskey”. The press were there waiting for a quote from me. I was ready;
“I’ll have one of each!” said I.
Thus began a sequence of events that led to the building of a homeless shelter. I shall never forget all the parishioners, community leaders, lawyers, police, civic leaders and so on who became a part of a collaborative effort to build that shelter. What had begun in controversy and confrontation, eventually became a galvanizing rally point for constructive cooperative ministry. It began however with with my willingness to serve as a lightning rod!
When Jesus tells us to turn the cheek and to love our enemies, I don’t think he means that we are to roll over and play dead in the midst of conflict. Rather I think Jesus wants us to engage one another honestly and creatively in a way that leads to reconciliation. That’s how it all worked out for us in Saint Albans. West Virginia.
Things don’t always work out so well. When Jesus confronted the religious authorities of his day, he overturned the tables in the Temple precincts and then there was the trial, the execution, and the dreadful death of Jesus.
But even then, even then at the very point of his deepest moment of suffering Jesus found it within him to say; “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
“You have heard that it was said of old ‘An eye for an eye’”
The bankruptcy of that ethic was clear to Jesus. As it was to Mahatma Gandhi who is quoted as having said;
“An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth merely leaves the whole world blind and toothless!”
Jesus insisted that we love our enemies.
Is such redemption possible in this nation and in this world of mutually exclusive opposites; particularly when our President seems to revel in insulting and alienating so many? Not only are we a divided nation, but the wedge between us seems to widen by the day.
I believe it takes much conflict and confrontation to work out the particulars of our reconciliation. We must be outspoken in our advocacy. Particularly as Christians and other folks of faith, we must speak up on behalf of the poor, the outcast, the marginalized and the alien among us. The ethical biblical mandate requires us to do so.
You did hear that verse from Leviticus in today’s first lesson? When describing the farmer’s duties when harvesting, the Biblical ethic requires that the margins of the farmer’s field be left for the benefit of the poor and the alien among them. And then the Scripture says; “You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself!”.
No doubt you will remember that when Jesus described our neighbor he singled out the Samaritan. Samaritans were despised by the general population of the day. They were foreigners, and their religion was “different”. I’m sure there were those who would have deported them all back to Samaria if they had it in their power to do so.
Foreigners! My grandmother, God rest her soul, used to say that it was the Irish who ruined Boston. That tells you what she thought of my dad especially after that nasty divorce.
She also made me promise on the family bible that I would never marry an Italian. I promised! Obviously I broke that promise. And I’m glad I did. But my grandmother is fine about all that now that she’s got it all straight in heaven.
There always has been prejudice based on race, ethnicity, class, national origin, language, gender and orientation. There always will be. Folks have put folks in pigeon holes for ever.
But what of Jesus? Did he reject the outcast, the sick, the poor, the blind, the lame or the lepers. Did he reject the prostitutes or the tax collectors or look his nose down at common fisherfolk?
Who did Jesus reject?
The only folks Jesus had trouble with were the religious literalists of his day who kept trying to catch him up in his words. Ultimately, he found a way to love them too!
Is there any hope for America and our sad divisions?
There is this one thought. It is a reach but let me mention the hope I have for this country. The American Bald Eagle. It is a magnificent symbol for this nation. Ben Franklin thought it might be safer to use the Turkey as the symbol of this nation given the factious nature and level of intelligence of far too many.
But if we could be inspired by the symbol of our nation’s greatness, then hope is possible. Look what it takes for an Eagle to fly. It takes both wings; the left wing as well as the right wing. And no matter how far out those feathers are, they all work together for a purpose.
Dare we hope that we could honor one another in this country, and across the great divides that appear to be at such variance? This is a great dare. I’m not sure we can do that. But if we could, the Eagle would do more than fly, it could soar!
Clearly this is one of the reasons Jesus told us to “Love our enemies”. He also told us that he expected us to be perfect as God in heaven is perfect. This is where I fall short of the mark. I can get hurt. I can get angry. My feelings can even verge far too close to hateful. This is not what Jesus had in mind when he asked me to be perfect.
When I become aware that I have strayed a bit too far from the desirable perfection that Jesus has in mind, I look for a way to return to him with all my heart. Righteousness is a corrective then to our behavior. When I veer off to the left or to the right of that righteous line, Jesus beckons me to return. After all we are called to be perfect even as God in heaven is perfect.
When the Chief Executive governing officer of these United States of America revels in mockery and disparaging disrespect we have a problem at the very heart and soul of the nation. Likewise the Press, and all up and down the body politic of this nation. Are we enemies who insist on our hatefulness? Or can we find our way to Peace once more with Freedom and Justice for All?
Will this Eagle soar? Or will its broken wings confine itself to the ground?
It took some time, everyone had to swallow some pride but the President of St Albans City Council and I came to a deeper understanding, appreciation and respect for one another. So too with the Police. I often brought donuts to the break room as a peace offering. And when a K-9 was cut down in the line of duty, the Baptist minister refused to bury the dog. Apparently the dog was not regarded as having a soul. But one of the police officers knew I’d bury the dog. Fr. Paul, they knew had a heart for all God’s creation.
All in God’s good time. All is made well. Peace reigns. The homeless shelter is built. Perfection is Present to us even if only for a brief and fleeting moment.
What of America here and now? Will we seek peace and justice once more? Or rather will we insist on characterizing one another as enemies. Jesus tells us that we must love our enemies. Jesus tells us to be perfect as God in Heaven wants you to be Perfect. Will we seek God's will or our own? How we answer that question will make all the difference.
In the Name of God the most Holy, Undivided, and Everlasting Trinity. Amen.